Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

Social Epistemology

2012 (34) Issue 2


The research program of social epistemology developed from a critique of philosophical epistemology around thirty years ago. Since then it has attracted ever-growing attention among philosophers. But social epistemology also offers prolific alignments for the social sciences. The starting point of social epistemology is the elementary fact that most of our knowledge is acquired not by our own autonomous exploration but by relying on information from others: on testimony. This is especially true in a modern world with a high degree of division of cognitive labour. We are especially dependent on the testimony of experts and specialists whose qualifications and competence cannot directly be judged by us as laypersons.

At first sight the approaches of social epistemology and social theory seem to be quite different. At the center of social epistemology there is a normative question: how can a person’s belief be justified and count as knowledge if it is not grounded in personal experience but based on testimony? For a social theory of knowledge the corresponding question is descriptive: how can a person’s belief be explained if it is based on testimony? The problem whether or not such a belief represents genuine knowledge in a philosophical sense is of no special concern from this perspective.

If social theory is framed within a rational actor approach, the divide narrows. Social theories in this tradition try to explain social facts and developments as aggregated results of rational individual action. If this approach is applied to the field of knowledge acquisition, the process of information transfer and the resulting beliefs must be traced back to rational actions of the individuals involved. If such a rational explanation is successful, the social scientist comes very close to the philosophical concept of rational justification. Vice versa, a philosophical justification of epistemological strategies can be taken as a first blueprint of a rational explanation.

To social scientists not only the explanation of descriptive and factual knowledge is of interest but even more so the explanation of moral knowledge and normative convictions. And whatever philosophical reasons we may have to separate moral and factual knowledge, a look at the empirical facts reveals that moral convictions are learned in much the same way as factual beliefs and that similar mechanisms are at work here. From a commonsense perspective, there is no clear demarcation between factual and moral knowledge and consequently people defer to moral experts as they defer to other experts. Therefore, whatever we think normatively about learning morality from moral experts, descriptively the analysis of knowledge transfer by testimonial processes will help us to understand the factual emergence of moral convictions too.

The epistemic role of moral expertise and moral experts is one of the focal points in this issue. However, the opening article by Caitlin Cole, Paul Harris and Melissa Koenig deals with a different topic: How do children acquire testimonial beliefs? The authors discuss empirical evidence of children’s trust in testimony, their sensitivity to and use of defeaters, and their appeals to positive reasons to trust what other people tell them. The paper by Karen Jones and François Schroeter starts the discussion on moral expertise and moral experts. They survey recent work and contest the asymmetry thesis according to which cognitive deference to expertise that characterizes other areas is out of place in morality. In her comment, Alison Hills defends her claim that deference to moral experts is not always appropriate. Dieter Birnbacher discusses the role of professional philosophers as ’ethical experts’ and analyses the nature of the expertise they bring to bear on practical decisions. Tobias Steinig extends Goldman’s notions of expert and testimony to normative issues and uses this framework for a critical comment on the papers by Jones, Schroeter and Birnbacher. In Frank Dietrich’s paper the concept of a moral expert is defended but the delegation of quasi-legislative functions to ethics committees is questioned. Michael Baurmann also refers to the increasing influence of ethics committees and points out indicators that ethics may be undergoing a similar development to law in some respects. The paper by Martin Hoffmann concludes the section by examining how laypeople can judge the reliability of experts in the domain of morality.

Bernd Lahno focuses on the general structure of information transmission and introduces a game theoretic model to identify different forms of uncertainty in the relation between sender and receiver. Paul D. Thorn and Gerhard Schurz apply the method of ’meta-induction’ to the claim that crowds can reveal a superior wisdom, thereby contesting the assumption that diverse and independent judgment is essential for ’wise crowds’. The paper is followed by three comments: Christian J. Feldbacher stresses that both ability and diversity are of equal importance to a group’s performance; Carlo Martini argues that formal models are easily misunderstood when presented without a context of application, and Jan-Willem Romeijn, Peter Grünwald and Tom Sterkenburg claim that both meta-induction and crowd wisdom can be understood as pertaining to absolute reliability rather than comparative optimality.

This collection of papers is inspired by a conference on Collective Knowledge and Epistemic Trust. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Social Epistemology which took place at the Afried Krupp Wissenschafskolleg in Greifswald from 6–8 May 2010 and was organized by Michael Baurmann, Alvin I. Goldman and Philip Kitcher. The organizers are grateful to the Deutsche Forschungsmeinschaft (DFG) and the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung for their generous financial support.

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Table of Contents

Title: Entitled to Trust? Philosophical Frameworks and Evidence from Children
Author: Caitlin A. Cole / Paul L. Harris / Melissa A. Koenig
Page: 195-216

Abstract: How do children acquire beliefs from testimony? In this chapter, we discuss children’s trust in testimony, their sensitivity to and use of defeaters, and their appeals to positive reasons for trusting what other people tell them. Empirical evidence shows that, from an early age, children have a tendency to trust testimony. However, this tendency to trust is accompanied by sensitivity to cues that suggest unreliability, including inaccuracy of the message and characteristics of the speaker. Not only are children sensitive to evidence of unreliability, but they are also sensitive to the positive reasons a speaker may have for the reliability of their testimony. This evidence is discussed in relation to reductivist and non-reductivist viewpoints.

Title: Moral Expertise
Author: Karen Jones / François Schroeter
Page: 217-230

Abstract: This paper surveys recent work on moral expertise. Much of that work defends an asymmetry thesis according to which the cognitive deference to expertise that characterizes other areas of inquiry is out of place in morality. There are two reasons why you might think asymmetry holds. The problem might lie in the existence of expertise or in deferring to it. We argue that both types of arguments for asymmetry fail. They appear to be stronger than they are because of their focus on moral expertise regarding all-in judgments about rightness. We reject this emphasis on all-in judgment in favor of an account of moral expertise as typically multi-stranded and domain limited. This account of moral expertise is better able to address the problem of how to identify those who have expertise. It also offers a more nuanced picture of the contrast between accepting a moral claim on one’s own and accepting it on testimony.

Title: Comment on Karen Jones and François Schroeter
Author: Alison Hills
Page: 231-236

Abstract: In this comment I defend my account of moral understanding and its role in morally worthy action and claim that a fully virtuous person would have moral understanding. This means that deference to moral experts is not always appropriate. But there is still room for a social moral epistemology, whereby moral experts pass on moral understanding.

Title: Can There Be Such a Thing as Ethical Expertise?
Author: Dieter Birnbacher
Page: 237-249

Abstract: Ethics in the 21st century is threatened by a split between practical philosophy as a full-blown academic discipline and applied ethics as pragmatic problem-solving inside the political process. The place of the professional philosopher sitting on medical and other ’ethics committees’ as an ’ethical expert’ is somewhere in between. But where exactly? How is his role defined? Is the expertise he brings to bear on practical decisions of a purely technical or of a substantially moral kind? These issues are discussed both ’from the outside’ and ’from the inside’. First, some of the theoretical controversies surrounding ’ethical expertise’ are discussed on the background of a rapidly growing literature in the field. These are then related to the realities of commission work as they confront the academic ethicist in practice.

Title: Experts, Teachers and Their Epistemic Roles in Normative and Non-normative Domains
Author: Tobias Steinig
Page: 251-274

Comments on Dieter Birnbacher and Karen Jones & François Schroeter

Abstract: Goldman’s notions of expert and testimony in epistemological contexts are extended to normative issues. The result is a sketch of a conceptual framework: several types of experts and roles they can serve in informing not specially qualified recipients are distinguished; differences between experts in epistemological and moral contexts are highlighted. This framework then is the point of reference for claims about experts, expertise and moral testimony in Birnbacher’s and Jones & Schroeter’s contributions to this volume. First, Birnbacher’s worries about the legitimacy of moral philosophers sitting as experts on panels, etc. are allayed in one respect and aggravated in another: there are roles and qualifications open to informants about normative issues, but it is doubtful whether moral philosophers per se are up to each of them. Secondly, Jones & Schroeter’s objection to Hills’s claim that moral testimony cannot orient its recipient properly towards right-making reasons for acting is faulty.

Title: Moral Expertise and Democratic Legitimacy
Author: Frank Dietrich
Page: 275-284

Abstract: In modern democracies, moral experts play an increasingly important role in law-making. Apart from the question of which competences characterize moral experts, their influence on the legitimacy of democratic procedures must be discussed. On the one hand, the contribution of moral experts promises to improve the quality of decision-making. On the other hand, however, moral experts cannot claim to represent the will of the people. In this essay, at first a concept of the moral expert will be sketched which does without the assumption of a privileged access to ’moral truths’. Then a procedural understanding of democratic legitimacy without epistemic components will be defended. Finally there will be a distinction between the purely consultative and the quasi-legislative tasks of ethics committees. Whereas councelling by moral experts does not influence the legitimacy of democratic procedures, giving them quasi-legislative functions is connected to risks in this respect.

Title: A Sociological Speculation about Law and Ethics
Author: Michael Baurmann
Page: 285-297

Abstract: It is argued that ethics is undergoing a similar development in modern societies as law did in former times. If this development continues, it could be that in the future collective decisions in many areas will be justified by the application of ethical principles just as today judicial decisions are justified by the application of the rules of law. The paper describes some of the remarkable similarities between law and ethics in modern societies and considers possible causes of this development.

Title: How to Identify Moral Experts? An Application of Goldman’s Criteria for Expert Identification to the Domain of Morality
Author: Martin Hoffmann
Page: 299-313

Abstract: How can laypeople justifiably distinguish between reliable experts and unreliable experts? This problem, usually called the ’problem of expert identification’, is highly debated in recent social epistemology. A great amount of work has been undertaken in order to find satisfactory criteria for identifying experts in different branches of the empirical sciences, but hardly in the domain of moral knowledge. This asymmetry between social and moral epistemology is the motivation behind my paper. I reconsider the epistemological problem of identifying moral experts by applying identification criteria developed in general social epistemology to the area of morality. As I will show, all of these criteria turn out to be inappropriate for identifying moral experts. This result seems implausible, because it conflicts with the observation that moral experts play an important role in public and scientific discourse, in ethics committees and boards. But this is not a real contradiction as I will illustrate by explaining which tasks these experts can, in my view, fulfil.

Title: Simple Games of Information Transmission
Author: Bernd Lahno
Page: 315-338

Abstract: Communication is an inherently strategic matter. This paper introduces simple game theoretic models of information transmission to identify different forms of uncertainty which may pose a problem of trust in testimony. Strategic analysis suggests discriminating between trust in integrity, trust in competence, trust in (the will to invest) effort and trust in honesty. Whereas uncertainty about the sender's honesty or integrity may directly influence a rational receiver's readiness to rely on sender's statements, neither uncertainty about the competence of a sender nor uncertainty about his willingness to invest effort has any direct impact on rational reliance on its own. In this regard, trust in honesty and trust in integrity appear to be more basic than trust in competence or effort.

Title: Meta-Induction and the Wisdom of Crowds
Author: Paul D. Thorn / Gerhard Schurz
Page: 339-365

Abstract: Meta-induction, in its various forms, is an imitative prediction method, where the prediction methods and the predictions of other agents are imitated to the extent that those methods or agents have proven successful in the past. In past work, Schurz demonstrated the optimality of meta-induction as a method for predicting unknown events and quantities. However, much recent discussion, along with formal and empirical work, on the Wisdom of Crowds has extolled the virtue of diverse and independent judgment as essential to maintenance of 'wise crowds'. This suggests that meta-inductive prediction methods could undermine the wisdom of the crowd inasmuch these methods recommend that agents imitate the predictions of other agents. In this article, we evaluate meta-inductive methods with a focus on the impact on a group's performance that may result from including meta-inductivists among its members. In addition to considering cases of global accessibility (i.e., cases where the judgments of all members of the group are available to all of the group's members), we consider cases where agents only have access to the judgments of other agents within their own local neighborhoods.

Title: Meta-Induction and the Wisdom of Crowds
Author: Christian J. Feldbacher
Page: 367-382

Comment on Paul D. Thorn and Gerhard Schurz

Abstract: In their paper on the influence of meta-induction to the wisdom of the crowd, Paul Thorn and Gerhard Schurz argue that adding meta-inductive methods to a group influences the group positively, whereas replacing independent methods of a group with meta-inductive ones may have a negative impact. The first fact is due to an improvement of average ability of a group, the second fact is due to an impairment of average diversity within a group by meta-induction. In this paper some critical remarks to meta-inductive group expansion and replacement are made. In particular it is stressed that both ability and diversity are of equal importance to a group's performance.

Title: Applying Formal Social Epistemology to the Real World
Author: Carlo Martini
Page: 383-398

Comment on Paul D. Thorn and Gerhard Schurz

Abstract: The claim that diversity and independence have a net positive epistemic effect on the judgments of groups has been recently defended formally by Scott Page, among others, and popularized in Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. In Meta-Induction and the Wisdom of Crowds Thorn and Schurz take issue with the claim that more diversity and independence in groups leads to better collective judgments. I argue that Thorn and Schurz’s arguments are helpful in clarifying a number of over-generalizations about diversity and independence that are often circulated in the social epistemology literature. I also argue that the relevant formal arguments are easily misunderstood when presented ’in a vacuum’, that is, without a context of application in mind. I provide a different approach to understanding formal results in social epistemology: With the help of concrete scenarios and the formal literature, I focus on a trade-off between independence and dependence in groups. I show that the approach works well also for another principle in social epistemology; namely, the principle that ’more heads are better than few’.

Title: Good Listeners, Wise Crowds, and Parasitic Experts
Author: Jan-Willem Romeijn / Tom Sterkenburg / Peter Grünwald
Page: 399-408

Comment on Paul D. Thorn and Gerhard Schurz

Abstract: This article comments on the article of Thorn and Schurz in this volume and focuses on, what we call, the problem of parasitic experts. We discuss that both meta-induction and crowd wisdom can be understood as pertaining to absolute reliability rather than comparative optimality, and we suggest that the involvement of reliability will provide a handle on this problem.